Previous Section Index Home Page

The European Commission has been informed. The export of poultry to the EU remains permitted under EU law from areas outside the restricted zone. With third countries, we have notified all posts around the
13 Nov 2007 : Column 543
world. We are withdrawing export health certificates for those third countries that already require complete avian influenza freedom.

In addition, the national general licences permitting bird gatherings in England, Scotland and Wales have been revoked. No bird shows or pigeon racing will be permitted for the time being. We have taken this measure nationwide as bird gatherings pose an especially high risk for the onward spread of the disease.

The measures that we have taken are precautionary and reflect the uncertainty of the situation. A full epidemiological investigation has started into the source of the outbreak and the risks of further spread. Tracings and surveillance work are under way. As a result of the investigation, we expect the culling of any dangerous contacts to take place. We will confirm details as soon as possible as more information becomes available.

It is too early to speculate about the source of the virus and all possibilities are being investigated. The chance remains that there might be further undisclosed disease in the area, which, as hon. Members will know, has a high density of poultry. As further information becomes available, and in consultation with ornithological and other experts, the restrictions already in place may be adjusted. It is for that reason that the acting chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, has been urging all poultry keepers to practise the highest standards of biosecurity and to be vigilant for signs of disease. It is very important that they act quickly and contact their local Animal Health office if they suspect anything.

I wish to reassure the House that avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds. It is an animal, rather than a human, health problem. The Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency have been fully involved in the action taken so far and their advice is clear. Avian influenza has so far been shown to spread between birds and humans only through close and prolonged contact with infected birds. In other words, it is a difficult disease to catch. Therefore, the only current known possible human health consequences are for those working closely with live or dead infected poultry. We have taken a precautionary approach to protect the health of the workers involved. The Department of Health has made seasonal flu vaccine available to all poultry workers to guard against the risk of the disease mutating by spreading to a person with seasonal flu. The Food Standards Agency advises that there is no risk in eating any sort of properly cooked poultry and eggs.

Finally, I would like to record my thanks to all those who are working so hard on this task, including Animal Health, local authorities, the police, stakeholders and many others, especially given the important work that is continuing on foot and mouth disease and bluetongue.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the brief advance notice I had of it. Like him, I look forward to the day when he comes to the House with something good to say.

Coming after foot and mouth disease and bluetongue, an outbreak of avian influenza at a turkey farm in the run-up to Christmas is a nightmare for the farming industry. Matters are tough enough in the
13 Nov 2007 : Column 544
poultry sector because of recent large increases in the price of feed. Farmers could be forgiven for asking what on earth they have done wrong to deserve the blows that they have had to endure this year. It is clearly especially bad news that the strain involved in the present case is the highly pathogenic virus H5N1. Although that means that even greater than usual vigilance will be required, it is important to recognise that, as the Secretary of State said, this is a disease of birds and it remains completely safe to eat cooked poultry meat.

As in the case of bluetongue, although—infamously—not in the case of foot and mouth disease, the latest outbreak of avian influenza arises from circumstances beyond the Government’s control. I congratulate those who are involved in dealing with the situation on the ground in Suffolk, including local authorities. They have our good wishes.

Is the Secretary of State aware, however, that recently the Minister with responsibility for animal health, Lord Rooker, received a letter from Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, chairman of the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services—LACORS—protesting at cuts being imposed by his Department in the funds available to local councils for dealing with outbreaks of animal disease? Councillor Theobald pointed out that originally £9.7 million was promised for those purposes this year, but that because of DEFRA’s financial mismanagement only £8.5 million was allocated to councils. They have now been told to cut their animal health budgets by 12 per cent. within the last five months of this year. As Councillor Theobald put it to Lord Rooker,

It seems even less appropriate now, following the latest outbreak of avian influenza.

The public simply will not understand why, with their local councils in the front line of the battle against such animal diseases and with resources already stretched to breaking point, DEFRA has pulled the rug on the budget for controlling animal disease. Can the Secretary of State explain why he is cutting the animal health budget for local authorities, and what he now proposes to do about it in the light of these events?

Obviously, it will be essential to take no risks with biosecurity, but can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will take full account not only of the economic impact on the farming sector, but of the collateral impact on other rural businesses of any restrictions imposed? For example, this is a key time of year for shooting—an activity that contributes £1.6 billion to the UK economy. I understand that during the last outbreak of avian influenza, restrictions were placed on shooting without any consultation. Will the Secretary of State ensure that, notwithstanding the need to act quickly, there will be proper discussion with those whose livelihoods are likely to be affected by measures to control the disease?

After the avian influenza outbreak in February, the Government launched a lessons-learned inquiry. The report made 34 operational recommendations on the management of an outbreak of AI. The Government
13 Nov 2007 : Column 545
accepted all of them, but how many have actually been implemented? What steps has the Secretary of State taken since the outbreak in Holton in February to increase awareness of the Great Britain poultry register? On that subject, can he confirm that some 3 million birds are registered within the surveillance zone? Has he any information on how many there are within the overall restricted zone?

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the feasibility of housing a huge number of birds across the area, many of which are kept out of doors, with no housing available? What assessment has he made of the practicality of keeping commercial flocks away from the wild bird population? On transporting carcases for disposal, he will be aware that concerns were expressed during the Holton outbreak that lorries carrying carcases were not properly sealed, despite the Government’s assertions to the contrary. What measures has he put in place to ensure complete biosecurity during transport?

We very much hope that the outbreak will be contained, but we must of course be prepared to deal with the consequences if it is not. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that he has the resources, facilities and slaughter capacity to deal with the culling and disposal of a much larger number of birds in a more widespread outbreak? Has he ensured that divisional veterinary officers have established arrangements for responding to an outbreak of disease at all large commercial poultry premises in their area, as recommended by the lessons-learned inquiry?

Finally, what assessment has he been able to make so far of the adequacy of the biosecurity arrangements at the farm at the centre of the outbreak, and when was that farm last inspected?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words for those who have been working extremely hard in the past 24 hours and beyond to deal with the situation. I am aware of the letter that Councillor Theobald wrote. There is a discussion every year about the estimates of what local authorities will need to expend, and about the amount of money available. Given the length of time that the hon. Gentleman dedicated to that bit of his response to the statement, I was not entirely clear whether he was advancing the argument that the issue in any way affects our capacity, or local authorities’ capacity, to respond to the outbreak. If he has any information to that effect, I would be grateful if he gave it to me.

We will assess the economic impact. The countryside remains open. On shooting, restrictions were previously put in place, but I can tell the House that I currently have no plans for such a restriction, because, on reflection, what was done last time seemed disproportionate to its potential impact. I promise that there will be consultation if that position changes. I will happily respond to the hon. Gentleman to let him know exactly where we have got to on the implementation of the lessons learned from the incident in February this year. I am sure that he will understand that those who might draw up that letter are now working hard, dealing with the current outbreak, so I will be extremely grateful if he will bear with me.


13 Nov 2007 : Column 546

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Great Britain poultry register was established in December 2005. As of 1 October, the register held details of 24,161 premises, and a very large number of birds have been registered in that time. Keepers of poultry premises with 50 or more birds are required by law to register their holding. Those with fewer birds are not required to do so, but it is possible for those with smaller flocks to do so on a voluntary basis. One of the difficulties is that there will be smaller poultry keepers who are not registered, so it is important that all of us give them the message that they, too, must be vigilant and must report any concerns that they have.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the practicalities. Where there is housing, poultry can be taken inside, and netting can be used, but there are real difficulties. We must recognise the circumstances, particularly in view of the proximity of the premises in question to a nature reserve, where a large number of wild birds are to be found. I can assure him that every step will be taken to ensure that containers and lorries are properly sealed. I say again that if anyone has any concerns, it is important that they raise them with me or my officials.

Animal Health has the resources that it needs to deal with the current outbreak, but it is stretched because of the other two diseases with which it is dealing. I will not speculate in the House on whether the outbreak will get larger; we are doing our darnedest to make sure that it stays where it is.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, investigations are taking place on the arrangements that applied at the farm concerned. The most important thing, having locked things down, is to trace the contacts and movements, so that we can take the appropriate action.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State has made it clear that if poultry is properly prepared and cooked there is no danger to human health from eating it—but this is a vital time for the poultry sector. Will he talk to colleagues and the wider industry to promote the case for poultry at a critical time for the industry?

Hilary Benn: I will gladly do that. We all have a responsibility, particularly at times like this, both to take the right action to deal with disease outbreaks and to reinforce the point that those industries are extremely important to the country, to exports and to the livelihood of the people who work in them. It is important that we promote their products, given the advice that I have received, and which my hon. Friend confirmed, that it is safe to eat properly cooked poultry.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement. I pay tribute to those who identified the outbreak and worked to contain it in those premises. This is the third major blow to the UK meat industry: first foot and mouth affected the beef, sheep and pig industries, then bluetongue—and now, avian flu could not have come at a worse time for poultry farmers. What assessment have the Government made at this early stage about the likely origin of the outbreak, and the involvement of migratory birds? Could other poultry units be at similar risk? How quickly can licensing arrangements be up and running
13 Nov 2007 : Column 547
for the movement of live poultry in and out of the restriction zone? I understand that there is a hatchery within that zone, and I should like to know whether the Minister has made any assessment of the welfare of chicks delayed in the hatchery because of movement restrictions. On the basis of welfare, what will happen to poultry owners who do not have enough housing to house all their poultry as required under the regulations? What assessment has the Minister made of the need to balance the restriction zones to ensure that we provide biosecurity and a proportionate response for the industry? Is he confident that Animal Health has sufficient capacity in its mobile gassing units to cull poultry on the affected site, and possibly other affected sites, to the agreed welfare standards? Finally, what assessment has he made of vaccination as a response to the outbreak?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words for those who are working so hard at the moment. On the origin of the outbreak, the honest truth is that we do not currently know. We can speculate, but it is not terribly helpful to do so. Obviously, the epidemiological team will work very hard to try to find out the origin. We do not yet know whether this is the first and only case, or whether there are others; we will just have to see what transpires while working hard to contain the outbreak. Licensing officials will work to provide those licences as soon as possible. I have not looked at the question of the hatchery, but I will make inquiries and come back to the hon. Gentleman, if that is all right. Similarly, on cases where there is not sufficient housing, guidance is available on the website, but I will make inquiries about whether it is possible to net animals as an alternative. We absolutely will balance the restrictions that have been put in place, and have regard both to the overriding need to contain the outbreak, and to trade implications. That is why we moved swiftly last night to put the bigger restriction zone in place, so that bigger intra-Community trade can take place outside the zone.

The location of the outbreak makes it a difficult site for Animal Health, but having spoken to Glenys Stacey this morning about the equipment and material that has been brought in, I am confident that it is doing all that is required. As I reported to the House, the culling has already begun. The House will know that vaccination is permitted in zoos, because they house rare breeds, and biosecurity can be of the tightest standard, but apart from that, vaccination is not the policy and is not permitted, because it can mask animals carrying the disease, thus making the control of an outbreak more difficult. If that position changed, I would obviously inform the House, but the policy is not to vaccinate in these circumstances.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I understand that the Department operates a dedicated helpline to deal with calls related to this serious problem. Will my right hon. Friend give the House a little more detail about the operation of the helpline?

Hilary Benn: Yes, I can. For those who want to make a note, the number is 08459 335577. The helpline operates from 6 am to 10 pm and it can provide information to those who have queries. Information is also available on the DEFRA website.


13 Nov 2007 : Column 548

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for contacting me promptly as soon as the outbreak was discovered in my constituency. I trust that he will give all the support in his power to those in the East Anglian farming industry as a whole, who have had a very tough year indeed. The local veterinary office in Bury St. Edmunds is already dealing with bluetongue controls. What additional resources will the right hon. Gentleman make available to that office so that staff, already busy, are not stretched to breaking point or deflected from important bluetongue surveillance?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. That gives me the opportunity to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and the Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health, my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who have been notifying other right hon. and hon. Members whose constituents are affected by the bigger restriction zone. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that additional staff are coming into the disease control centre that has been established locally in Bury St. Edmunds, so that people can continue the work in relation to bluetongue. Sadly, as a result of the events of the past few months Animal Health is well used to gearing up and getting going pretty quickly, and that is exactly what staff are doing.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): As the Secretary of State knows, I represent a large number of poultry and duck producers in west Norfolk. Can he tell me how many of those producers will be in the restricted zone? Also, at a time when the poultry industry is suffering huge pressure because of large increases in feed prices, what compensation will be available to farmers whose flocks have to be culled?

Hilary Benn: I have not yet done a count of the number of premises or producers who will be affected by the restriction zone that we put in place yesterday evening, but I am sure that information can be gleaned from the poultry register. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will get that to him as quickly as I can. The position on compensation is this: if healthy poultry are culled, compensation will be paid. If the poultry were already diseased or had died as a result of avian influenza, compensation is not provided. A calculation is done at the time when the culling takes place. Those are the well-established arrangements in place.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): What estimate, if any, has the Secretary of State made of the number of birds not covered by the poultry register? Although one can understand the reluctance to take steps that are disproportionate, it remains the case that the smaller flocks are more likely to be out of doors and more likely to be at risk. In a world where avian flu is apparently becoming more commonplace, is it time to consider extending the poultry register to cover most, if not all, birds?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. By definition, we do not know how many birds are not covered, because they are not
13 Nov 2007 : Column 549
on the register. The arrangements are those that I set out a moment ago. As I understand it, when the poultry register was first established, consideration was given to how low down, in terms of numbers, we should go in making it a requirement to register. A view was taken that at a certain point the regulatory burden—a subject with which many hon. Members are familiar—is greater than the case for making that a requirement. One of the things going on now is an attempt to identify those premises, particularly immediately around the premises at the centre of the outbreak. As I have said to the House on all such occasions, when the incident is over there will be further lessons to reflect upon, and the hon. Gentleman has raised one.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State is aware that I represent Mid-Norfolk. Sadly, over the past 10 years we have had, directly or indirectly, the impact of foot and mouth, swine fever, avian flu once, and now avian flu again and bluetongue. One of the things that I have learned from that—and I know how difficult this is for the Secretary of State—is that farmers and others need to be able to get up-to-date information easily. Sadly, in the past the system has frequently been overwhelmed. I understand that there is an element of resources and getting the process on flow, but I urge the Secretary of State to look into that matter. It is one of the issues that undermines confidence, particularly among farmers, in the first crucial week.

Hilary Benn: That, too, is an important point. We have done a range of things, some of which I have already described, to inform Members of Parliament, who are an important source of information down the line to constituents. We have introduced the helpline, the website and the news releases and notified local vets. The issues are widely reported in the media. As I have described, for all the registered keepers on the poultry register, information packs are ready to be delivered in the particular zones. The local media do a really important job, and the acting chief veterinary officer has given a press briefing this afternoon.

If it would be helpful to right hon. and hon. Members, I was going to suggest that we do a briefing. Would that be useful? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] We could get some of the team along and Members could raise more detailed questions. If that would be of assistance, I shall organise it.


Next Section Index Home Page